Bill Shipton was the stage name and pseudonym of Clive Harris, a freelance writer who penned some bits for “The Two Ronnies,” a BBC TV sketch comedy in the 1970s and 80s that also employed several members of Monty Python as writers. His specialty, though, was more performative; beginning in the early eighties he began presenting sort of off-Vaudeville burlesque events involving costumes, bawdy jokes, and messy slapstick gags like pies in the face. As this endeavor gained momentum, he began staging photo shoots of increasingly messy food fetishism and soliciting other such materials from people he met at his events. The culmination, first published in 1989, was Splosh! magazine.
The magazine, featuring WAM (wet and messy) pictures of willing participants dousing themselves and others with all manner of foods, became the nexus for a community of fetishists seeking validation for their proclivities and material to stimulate their imaginations. Production values were inconsistent, but he did sometimes achieve a cartoonish virtuosity with his photos, capturing the colors and textures of the various puddings, custards, and liquids as they slid down the bodies (dressed and undressed) of the participants. Most of the substances used—not all foods, though most are—exist between solid and liquid, like custard, treacle, and whipped cream. He captured images that convey some of what enthusiasts find so erotically mesmerizing: the combination of slick viscosity and curving flesh, a nearly suffocating layer of syrup sliding down an enraptured face, mouth agape like Bernini’s Saint Teresa (whose billowing robes, now that I think of it, could easily be meringue).
Splosh! ran for forty issues before ceasing publication, another in the long list of print media killed by the Internet. In response to rapidly changing technology, Shipton began producing videos, first on VHS, then on DVD, and finally as digital downloads. He never mastered video production, however; mostly shot against a wall in his studio, the videos are almost entirely frontal, harshly lit, and not edited artfully. But the gleeful amateurishness of his work, according to those who knew him, reflected his personality perfectly.
His comedy, irrespective of medium, was cheerful, cheeky, and cheesy: stereotypically British, always winking at its own silliness, eager to transgress boundaries of propriety and escape the pressure of manners and conformity. One typical video shows him as Heston Blumenawful, dumping course after course on two eager diners at his Fat Fuck restaurant. The conceit is obvious, the set nonexistent, the jokes groan-inducing; there’s nothing to recommend it from any technical point of view. But like pornography, it delivers a direct hit of stimulus to a receptive consumer: by the end, the two people are barely recognizable as human beneath their quivering palimpsests of goop. Just about all WAM videos, as with porn, end the same way.
Clive Harris died suddenly in 2013 at the age of 57. The Splosh! website, defunct for a period after his death, now continues as a forum where members share fantasies, images, and requests. It’s a friendly group, with nearly seven thousand members; people offer each other encouragement, tips, and share news. I posted some questions, and several members responded at length.
One member, Marion, discovered early on that “thinking about doing something really messy made me orgasm. Nothing else ever has.” When she heard the word “fetish”, at age ten, she knew that’s what she had, and she kept it secret. She found the forums three years ago. Raised in “a joyless fundamentalist Christian community,” she rejects the notion that her fetish is simply a reaction to her rigid upbringing.
At the heart of my attraction to WAM there’s a compulsion, a fascination with the creative process of making chaos. It’s mindful. My local newsagent is full of mindfulness colouring books marketed at women like me. I can tell you that my WAM experiences allow me immediate and sustained access to a sort of attentive, relaxed concentration that I’ve found nowhere else. A single drip of paint on a spotless white dress and I’m going to enter a magic-spell-world for hours until it’s in unrecognisable shreds on the floor. It’s sensual, it can be visually stunning, it’s viscerally liberating. It’s a way to intervene with myself, to press a reset button without involving alcohol or drugs. I get the same danger-thrill from this as some folks get from roller-coasters or skydiving; it’s hard to understand if you don’t feel it yourself. I’ve often wondered if fetishes are really very alike to phobias, just subject to so much more taboo because of the sexual element. If you’ve ever jumped out of your skin because you saw a spider, you’ll understand how a phobia stimulus can cause a monumental emotional reaction. It’s like that, but sexy, not scary. WAM transfixes me.
The Splosh! forums are still mostly British in membership—the people quoted here all live in the UK—and the national character that Shipton so expertly explored continues to show in the content users share with each other. Marion enjoys that specificity, especially as other sites have become noisy and generic. Other members concur, and there is a notably friendly intimacy in the various threads. Marion explains:
The Splosh forum has a very British tone, and that’s one of the things I love about it. I think there’s something about sploshing that allows us Brits to simultaneously defy and live up to national stereotypes about how we do sexuality, and we are quietly amused at the irony. You see, sploshing really is a ridiculous way to become aroused and the resulting amateur porn is often undignified, awkward, eccentric, sexless, and absurd. And that’s sort of the point; you take those feelings, cock a snook at them, and then start throwing paint around. It’s an insider joke that would get lost amid the traffic on busier international websites.
Would an American audience understand what is meant by ‘enjoying yourself too much’? It is considered scandalous, on this polite little island, to be seen to be ‘enjoying yourself too much’. Sploshing is ALL ABOUT enjoying yourself too much, so on the Splosh forum you’ll find many people who have a keen eye for the point where a good social politeness rule becomes oppressive or puritanical. It’s a line that every culture must constantly negotiate and re-negotiate. The Brits do it best through the comedy of embarrassment, both in our public discourse and our private interactions with each other. The sploshing fits right in.
Another user, messyalan, discovered his attraction to WAM when he saw pie fights on old black and white television shows. For him, the charge comes in that first moment when something messy lands on his clothing: “Either by accident or on purpose. It is something you’re told not to do. The destruction of gorgeous clothes. It is not always erotically charged but the feeling of slipping and sliding in something messy can usually arouse me.” He doesn’t care about the edibility of the material he pours on himself, as long as it’s “something that is going to make a real mess.” Having found a supportive partner and community, he is less worried about being found out these days than he used to be. “I keep it a secret only because most other people wouldn't understand. However if asked I would probably admit to some or all of my fun.”
User sol84 also saw pie fights on Laurel & Hardy and felt something more than amusement. “Seeing someone get pied is a sexual act for me.” Years later, he happened to see Shipton on television, hanging out in Janus, a famous sex shop. Within days, he made the drive from Northern England to London. The shop carried Splosh!, and with it the revelation that he was not alone. He describes himself as a “WAM polyglot” who enjoys all manner of substances, both edible and non: “I do categorise 'harder/softer' substances, which relates to difficulty getting clean. So paint, flour, etc. are more hardcore than foam, custard, etc. If the mood is right, then harder is the deeper turn on—mostly from the realisation of how much clean up there will be.”
All three of these members (and others in various threads) say that without Splosh! They never would have been able to accept their particular predilections and feel at ease with themselves. Though it forms a central part of their identities, they keep it secret except for spouses and close friends; this tension is made much more bearable, even pleasurable in its secrecy, by the online community—a feeling no doubt shared by fetishists of all stripes. Today, in addition to Splosh!, there are several other sites specializing in WAM material. Communities exist all over the world. Online content, as in pretty much every other area of human culture today, abounds, in many forms (though it’s mostly resolutely amateur). “Sploshing” has entered the language, and there are myriad subsets and variations: solo, group, clothed, naked, and scenes including hardcore sex, thrashing around in puddles of multicolored goo.
Clive Harris/Bill Shipton was not a particularly successful writer, nor a polished performer. He was, however, tireless in his desire to explore and express the joys of his fetish for the world to see. By doing so, he gave countless others permission to follow their own desires and accept their foibles as essential and benevolent facets of themselves. By following his urges and celebrating his strangeness, he managed to make the world less frightening for people like him. One forum member thanks Shipton for all the money he saved the NHS in unincurred therapists’ bills. I’ll give Marion, ever eloquent, the last word: “All my life I felt burdened by the fact that my fetish was so unheard of and ignoble that it didn’t even have a name. Then I found Splosh!”